A few weeks ago I ended up in the hospital emergency room. Twice. The good news is that I'm perfectly healthy, according to all the tests and CT scans. The underlying culprit just might be self induced stress.
The saga began with stomach pains at work. I came home and took an antacid, to no relief. Then a tremendous headache developed. I phoned my physician's office, but the earliest they could see me was hours away. My wife, who is a nurse, observed my worsening condition and suggested the ER.
Upon arrival at the ER my headache had become debilitating. Tests were run and questions asked about my health. I eat a Mediterranean diet, exercise regularly and don't suffer from migraines. The medical staff were at a loss. Eventually an injection was given and the headache subsided to a dull ache. I was discharged and told to follow up with my doctor.
The next day I returned to work and also saw my doctor. He evaluated the hospital lab results and ordered a few tests. I ended up working a long day, came home and enjoyed dinner. Then I began working on my computer. Some family members asked me to serve as their wedding officiant and I had to complete their wedding vows and related itinerary. While I was typing I noticed another headache coming on. I took a few Advil, but no improvement.
Soon the headache reached epic levels and once again my wife raced me to the ER. Hospital staff can spot addicts who repeatedly visit the ER, feigning pain in the hopes of narcotic injections. I wondered if they'd think that of me. Fortunately, I was quickly evaluated and given two pills for the pain. The pills were barely effective so an injection of morphine came next. That dulled the pain to a manageable level. I was discharged with instructions to see my doctor.
Empty your "cerebral congestion"
Journalist Ferris Jabr wrote an excellent article in Scientific American titled Why Your Brain Needs Downtime. In the piece, Jabr notes the following: "In a four-year study, Leslie Perlow of the Harvard Business School and her colleagues tracked the work habits of employees at the Boston Consulting Group. Each year they insisted that employees take regular time off, even when they did not think they should be away from the office."
Jabr goes on to note that "Everyone resisted at first, fearing they would only be postponing work. But over time the consultants learned to love their scheduled time off because it consistently replenished their willingness and ability to work, which made them more productive overall."
It is well documented that sleep is good for us, improves memory and restores our spirit. Daytime naps are also beneficial, but not possible for everyone. And there's that post nap fog that some of us get. The gist of the Scientific American article is that downtime has immense benefits for our health and productivity. Time away from work allows us to empty what the article refers to as "cerebral congestion."
Idleness may not be the devil's workshop
We live in a rushed, productivity focused and competitive culture. People report how "busy" they are as almost a badge of honor. We focus on time management, task lists and putting in extra hours. While there are deadlines and "crunch times" that happen in our work lives, they are seldom constant.
Many companies are beginning to question this full throttle approach to work. There are some Silicon Valley tech companies that offer more flexible schedules and frequent periods of downtime. Research suggests people working in these new work environments are more productive than their haggard and overworked contemporaries in more traditional workplaces.
Ever notice how your best ideas often happen in the shower or on a walk? It's because your brain finally has a chance to ruminate and sort things out. Instead of reacting all the time, you're actually thinking. Consider this excerpt from the Scientific American article:
"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets," essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. "The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."
Really, turn off your computer
Writer, website designer and self described "freelancer evangelist" Paul Jarvis has written about the "quiet" of taking a social sabbatical. He noted that "One of my clients told me that social media sabbaticals are the new treks through Nepal." He adds, "I went from a few hours a day on social to none. And it was quiet. Almost eerily quiet."
I've written frequently about the value of simplifying your life, minimalism and stillness. Truth be told, I need to work on this more myself. Every time I watch a video of an artist I admire painting outdoors, I ask myself why I'm not doing more of that. The answer in part is because I'm tethered to my laptop, smartphone and iPad. Sure, there's work and other responsibilities, but I know if I turn off the devices and pick up my paintbox, the world won't end.
The power of downtime in this digital age is that it allows us to reconnect with ourselves. Rediscover the exhilaration of fresh mountain air. Or the salty mist of an ocean wave. Really, turn off your computer. Grab the dog and take that walk. Or schedule a monday off and go adventure. The downtime will do you good and you'll likely return with new creative insights and energy.